The queens had finally had enough: In August 1966 — 54 years ago this month —transgender and gender-nonconforming customers at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria stood up to years of abusive, discriminatory treatment by the San Francisco police.
The all-night restaurant in the city’s impoverished Tenderloin neighborhood was an unwilling haven for queer residents, and after its management called law enforcement to remove a noisy table of diners, patrons frustrated with the constant profiling and police harassment started throwing plates, cups, trays, and silverware at the officers.
While police waited for backup, customers tore the cafeteria apart, and the riot spread onto nearby Turk and Taylor streets, damaging a police car and burning a newspaper stand to the ground.
Three years before the Stonewall riots in New York City, which most Americans consider the watershed moment for gay rights, transgender citizens of San Francisco took to the streets to demand better treatment and to hold their harassers accountable.
Although the conflict at Compton’s was mostly ignored by the media, including publications run by the nascent gay community, 1966 would prove a major turning point in the battle for transgender civil rights, a year when cultural shifts aligned to begin improving the trans community’s access to health care and its relationship with law enforcement.
In 2005, Susan Stryker shed light on this moment with her documentary, “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.” Soon after, Stryker completed a book titled “Transgender History,” which placed the rebellion at Compton’s Cafeteria in context among other moments of resistance to state-sanctioned violence and milestones in the march toward transgender acceptance.
Several gender-nonconforming residents who spent time in the Tenderloin and experienced abuse firsthand have since spoken out, including two women who spoke with us for this story.
By the mid-1960s, the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco had become a refuge for young people who didn’t fit into America’s strict gender binary, like trans activist Felicia “Flames” Elizondo. When Elizondo was in her teens, she had moved with her family to San Jose. One of Elizondo’s first boyfriends brought her to the Tenderloin, as it was a place they could be seen together without attracting unwanted attention. “That was when I was around 15 or 16,” she said. “The Tenderloin was the gay mecca of San Francisco.”
Since the late 19th century, the Tenderloin had housed much of San Francisco’s working class in its many residential hotels. It was also a haven for vice. In part, this was because the city’s corrupt police department allowed mob-run industries like drug dealing, gambling, and prostitution to flourish in the district as long as officials got their cut of the profits. Because of the area’s reputation for relaxed morals, the Tenderloin was where some of San Francisco’s first gay bars opened.
Elizondo, who moved to the Tenderloin in the mid-1960s, says the neighborhood’s residential hotels were the only places in the city that would rent rooms to openly LGBTQ individuals. “It’s where I met all the other queens and kids that were gay, though I don’t think they would’ve even called each other ‘gay’ yet,” she said. “We were just queer sissies at the time. There were queens, sissies, female impersonators, and hustlers, all living within that four-block radius.”
Before LGBTQ Americans had coalesced into a major political movement, the term “transgender” wasn’t widely used — instead people adopted a variety of self-descriptive labels like hustler, butch, drag queen, sissy, or hair fairy. “Transsexual” was the popular term used to specify someone who’d undergone gender-reassignment surgery.
Gustavo Villarreal, also known as Donna Personna, began visiting the Tenderloin as a teenager in the 1960s, riding the Greyhound bus up from her family home in San Jose. “I was looking for something that seemed gay or queer,” Villarreal said. “Somehow or other on my journeys, I discovered Gene Compton’s Cafeteria.”
In the thick of the Tenderloin at 101 Turk St., Compton’s Cafeteria became a popular spot for the neighborhood’s queer residents, particularly in the wee hours when sex work was most active. “It was open 24 hours a day, and you could see everybody you knew and parade your fashion or your boyfriend around,” Elizondo said.
Around the same time, a nearby section of Polk Street was transforming into a queer commercial corridor, though mostly aimed at middle-class gay men. In 1962, a group of bar owners in the area formed the Tavern Guild — the country’s first gay business association — to work against harassment and protect their businesses from unwarranted police closures. Yet, many of these same bars closed their doors to transgender customers.
“None of the gay bars allowed us in,” Elizondo said. “There were men who performed as female impersonators and dressed like women, but they had to go into the club looking like a boy and come out as a boy, or they’d be arrested.”
Gay and lesbian residents often exhibited prejudice toward gender-nonconforming persons. “Under the hierarchy of the gay umbrella, hair fairies were bad, flaming queens were horrible, and transgender women were the worst,” Villarreal explains. “Your parents didn’t like you, society didn’t like you, and your own community didn’t like you.”
Most transgender individuals couldn’t get hired for traditional jobs, and were forced to turn to sex work, drug dealing, or other illegal activities in order to survive. Villarreal remembers it being typical for several young trans women to bunk together in a single room.
“I went to the hotels where they lived, where seven or eight girls would share a hotel room by the month,” she explains. “They designated hours that each of them could sleep, and then took turns. That’s the only way they could afford a place.”
As the 1960s went on, police harassment worsened as the Vietnam War escalated. Because San Francisco was a major military deployment center, city officials encouraged crackdowns on gay bars that catered to closeted servicemen. Transgender women were frequently arrested on “suspicion of prostitution” when simply going about their daily lives.
As Stryker explains in her book, “They might be driven around in squad cars for hours, forced to perform oral sex, strip-searched, or, after arriving at the jail, humiliated in front of other prisoners.”
Official disdain for trans residents also meant that crimes against them were rarely investigated. “A lot of girls got killed and robbed. I think one of the girls got thrown off a second-story floor,” Elizondo said.
In July 1966, a group of LGBTQ youth in the Tenderloin founded Vanguard, which organized public demonstrations and published a self-titled magazine. Vanguard held many of its meetings at Compton’s Cafeteria and its members recognized the increasingly discriminatory behavior of the restaurant’s management toward its gender-nonconforming customers. Vanguard organized a July 18 picket line protest at Compton’s, though the restaurant remained unsympathetic.
Sometime in August, mounting frustrations boiled over into the late-night confrontation in the Tenderloin, with the San Francisco police and Compton’s Cafeteria bearing the brunt of residents’ anger.
“When the riot at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria happened, most of us didn’t know anything about it,” Elizondo said. “It wasn’t really important to us at the time; the queens were just trying to survive. We were trying to pay rent or to buy food. After the riot, it was like nothing ever happened. It wasn’t in the newspapers.”
However, many institutional changes did arrive on the heels of the protest at Compton’s: In the fall of 1966, the Central City Anti-Poverty Program Office opened in the Tenderloin, which created a new police-community relations officer job, first filled by Elliott Blackstone, who brought his compassionate perspective to the position.
“Blackstone worked to dissuade his colleagues in the police department from arresting transgender people simply for using the ‘wrong’ toilets or cross-dressing in public,” Stryker writes.
In November 1966, Johns Hopkins medical school launched the first gender reassignment program in the U.S., combining scientific research on the biology and psychology of gender with individual patient evaluations for hormone and surgery treatment.
Around the same time, San Francisco’s Public Health Department launched its own transgender health initiative, which offered group support sessions, psychological counseling, hormone prescriptions, and eventually surgery referrals to a Stanford clinic that opened in 1968. The Center for Special Problems also provided legitimate ID cards for transgender clients that matched their chosen name and gender presentation.
While trans advocates were working for better health care, a larger and more powerful LGBTQ political movement was forming. A few years after the riot at Compton’s, the repeated clashes with police and city officials paved the way for a more organized approach, which activists deployed at the Stonewall Inn riots in New York.
Sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Suzanna M. Crage pointed out a number of attributes that made Stonewall more resonant than earlier conflicts between the police and LGBTQ communities in a 2006 article for the American Sociological Review.
“Street queens and hustlers — marginalized by class, gender-presentation, and often race — were more willing than others to confront police, and were important in the riots at both Compton’s and the Stonewall Inn,” Armstrong and Crage wrote. “What Stonewall had, and Compton’s did not, were activists able and willing to capitalize on such rioting: high-resource, radical gay men.”
Well-connected activists ensured there was plenty of media coverage of the Stonewall riots, and as community members rallied the neighborhood and outsiders came to witness the upheaval, the protests were drawn out over multiple days.
Such organizers decided to hold a yearly event in New York in honor of Stonewall and encouraged other cities to stage their own protests at the end of June. Often called “Christopher Street Liberation Day” (named after the location of the Stonewall Inn), the annual festivities continued to grow, eventually transforming into the international LGBTQ Pride celebration we know today.
But stories of the original Stonewall riots have often been distorted to highlight white gay men while pushing gender-nonconforming folks out of the picture.
“They often portray Stonewall as a gay man’s riot, but it wasn’t,” Elizondo said. “It was everybody, including queens like Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major. I know it wasn’t only the trans community that fought back at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria; it was everyone. We all put our lives on the line to be who we are today — people got raped, thrown in jail, and murdered. We were all fighting for the same thing, the right to be treated equally.”
* To read the full, original August 2016 story about the transgender history, visit Collectors Weekly. To learn more, check out Susan Stryker’s film “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” her book, “Transgender History,” or visit San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society Museum & Archives.